Literature's favourite anti-heroes

20:40, Jun 12 2013

My favourite literary heroes have always fallen more into the category of anti-heroes. In the Harry Potter series, the two male characters I liked best were Sirius Black and Severus Snape.

There is something infinitely more thrilling about anti-heroes than your cliché noble heroes. Who can honestly admit there is not something that draw readers to Hamlet and Jon Snow? Or which romance reader would dare to admit that part of the reason they churn through those Mills & Boons is because the heroes, formulaic though they may be, are mostly anti-heroes who are redeemed by the love of a good woman?

Anti-heroes take their cue from Byron, who was a miserable, brooding and cynical type of man - prone to violent, unexpected longings and terrible mood swings. Far from the starry-eyed lamenting of Keats, the anti-hero is modelled much like the typical Kiwi southern man.

He rarely reveals his motives or feelings, is a bit of a dark horse when it comes to moral intentions, and often comes across at first glance as either demented or a villain. It's only as the story progresses that you start picking up on clues that he cares. Mr Darcy is a kind of gentle anti-hero, though a far nicer one than, say, Mr Rochester or Rhett Butler.

I prefer anti-heroes because there are layers to these characters that don't exist in conventional models. Much like burlesque or other forms of striptease, the excitement lies in the slow and skilful revelation, the uncovering of new terrain that still has the capacity to shock. 

The female anti-heroine, meanwhile, is a different kettle of fish. Anti-heroines are angry, feisty and opinionated. They don't conform to normal societal expectations of women, and are often painted as rebels from a young age. Think of Ayla from Jean M Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear, or Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.


It is a frustrating thing, the realisation that women have the same uphill struggles in literature as they have in real life, mostly.

The most important feature of any anti-hero and heroine is that they must ultimately be revealed as having a core of purity, despite their many flaws. So though Lisbeth Salander has the devil's temper, she hates injustice of any form and strives to build a better world through her rebellion. She is a hardbitten, cold and unreadable character in many ways, proving her strength of character only through complex actions.

Jay Gatsby gleaned his glittering empire through illegal and nefarious means, and though he can be irritating in his single-minded pursuit of Daisy, he is still the epitome of an anti-hero because of his love for her, which remained unadulterated throughout the book and which he basically went to his death defending.

Purity of intention and passion are what redeems anti-heroes and transforms them from that dark knife edge between hero and villain to tip more toward the side of the light.

Who are some of your favourite anti-heroes and/or anti-heroines?

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